Required Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2008

A weekly roundup of the week’s most important news, information and blog posts about curriculum, teaching, education policy and other items of interest to the Core Knowledge community.

Core Knowledge

What It Takes
You can’t ask kids to do “self-directed” writing about their family, their friends and their personal experiences throughout elementary school to the exclusion of nearly all else, then expect them to dazzle you with their insights into literature in middle school simply because you “raised expectations.”

Before 21st-century skills, teach basics
The Boston Globe
Massachusetts’ 21st Century Skills Task Force recommendations seem so reasonable at first glance: “Evolve” curriculum to include skills students will need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.  “But what those skills have in common,” write Charles Chieppo and Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, “is that being proficient at each requires knowledge of the liberal arts.”

The Adult Literacy Paradox
Millions of children struggle to attain a functional level of literacy, but where does the reading problem go when children grow up?  Overwhelmingly–but not always accurately–adults rate their own reading skills very highly. 

Best of the Blogs

The Calculator Conundrum at Making Education Public
Proponents of calculator use, argue that computational fluency is not essential to higher level math. They observe that higher level math is abstract, symbolic, and largely computation free. What they miss in this argument is distressingly plain to see. Abstraction only works when one knows what is being abstracted.

Flunking the Electoral College at Joanne Jacobs
Seventy-one percent of adults failed a civic (and economic) literacy test, according to Our Fading Heritage by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Un-Transition at Edspresso
A look at President-elect Obama’s education transition team members is telling, worries the blog of the Center for Education Reform. “They come from the traditional, Kozol-esque education perspective that relies on well-intentioned government programs and court decisions to force schools to do good, rather than accountability and power in the hands of educators and parents to create good.”

Teaching and Curriculum

Students shortchanged in math teaching
Associated Press
Poor and minority students are about twice as likely to have math teachers who don’t know their subject, according to a report by the Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group.  The complete Ed Trust report is available here.

‘Intimidating’ boys put girls off science, minister says
The Independent
Britain’s new Schools minister advocates a return to single-sex education to get girls more interested in subjects like science and engineering.

Parents clash over kindergarten Thanksgiving costumes
The Los Angeles Times
For decades, Claremont kindergartners have celebrated Thanksgiving by dressing up as pilgrims and Native Americans and sharing a feast.  Parents are sharply divided over whether these construction-paper symbols represent a child’s depiction of the traditional tale of two factions setting aside their differences, or a cartoonish stereotype.

Education Policy

Show-And-Tell Time
The education community is badly split on the issue of how to hold teachers accountable. The establishment sees tenure as teachers’ only guard against politics and arbitrary firings. Reformers regard it as the chief obstacle to change. Obama has given mixed signals on accountability, and in his way, he has convinced each side that he agrees with them.

Schools deserve bailout, too
The Miami Herald
As banks, cities and the auto industry apply to the federal government for a bailout, the Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho says Congress shouldn’t forget the nation’s public schools.

The true school scandal
The Los Angeles Times
The Obamas will send their two daughters to the expensive private school, Sidwell Friends. “Yes, that makes him something of a hypocrite,” writes Jonah Goldberg.  “But you know what? Who cares?  The scandal is that politicians tolerate such awful schools at all. For anyone.”

Support for magnet schools waning despite their success
The Los Angeles Times
The programs have frequently achieved their goal of voluntary integration and high-quality academic programs. But funding is stagnating, partly due to nation’s budget woes.

Homeschooling and Parenting

A New Face for A.D.H.D., and a Debate
The New York Times
The emergence of a major celebrity with attention deficit, Olympic star Michael Phelps, has revealed a schism in the community of patients, parents, doctors and educators who deal with the disorder. For years, these people have debated whether it means a lifetime of limitations or whether it can sometimes be a good thing.

Homeschoolers call for ABC boycott
Associated Content
Joy Behar, on ABC’s The View, remarked that “a lot” of homeschoolers are “demented.” This has many homeschoolers on the defense and even going as far as to call for a boycott of ABC programming.

Michelle Obama’s ‘Mommy’ Stamp
Washington Post
When Michelle Obama took to describing her new role as mom in chief, columnist Ruth Marcus winced. “What does it say about the condition of modern women that Michelle Obama, catapulted by her husband’s election into the ranks of the most prominent, sounds so strangely retro.  More Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?”

Et Alia

Children Who Live in Public Housing Suffer in School, Study Says
New York Times
New York City children who live in public housing perform worse in school than students who live in other types of housing, according to a study by New York University researchers.

Science for Girls

by Robert Pondiscio
November 29th, 2008

England’s new Schools Minister thinks single-sex science classes would get more girls to choose careers in science and engineering.  “Girls do much better in science in single-sex classes. Sarah McCarthy-Fry tells The Independent.  ”They sometimes feel intimidated in mixed-sex classes with the boys hogging the limelight and putting their hands up to answer all the questions.” Mrs Tuck said more people were aware girls learnt differently from boys due to “neurological differences” in the developments of their brains.

“Oh Jeebus, what now? High School Musical-branded Bunsen burners?” groans one wag over at the blog Liberal Conspiracy. “The idea of making the sciences more ‘girl-friendly’ in order to attract more women is not only a crock of s— but, if followed through as a policy objective, yet another nail in the coffin of science education in the UK.”

A slightly more measured take can be found over at Richard Whitmire’s blog, Why Boys Fail.

The Adult Literacy Paradox

by Robert Pondiscio
November 28th, 2008

It’s a given that as a nation, millions of children struggle to attain a functional level of literacy, but Tom Sticht of wants to know, where does the reading problem go when children grow up?  Overwhelmingly–but not always accurately–adults rate their own reading skills very highly.  When broken out by ethnic groups, Sticht notes, the ratings are

Whites: Very Well-77%, Well-21%, or Not Well/Not At All-3%.
Blacks: Very Well-67%, Well-27% and Not Well/Not At All-6%.
Hispanics: Very Well-46%, Well-22% and Not Well/Not At All-32%

Just because adults think they read well, however, doesn’t mean they do.  When the average proficiencies of whites and blacks on the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) prose scale were compared, Sticht notes, the average proficiency of whites who rated themselves as reading very well was 308, well above average.  Blacks rating themselves as reading very well scored 259, well below average.  What’s going on here?  Sticht has a theory:

Perhaps when children grow up and get out of the pre-K-12 world they adapt to the ambient literacy demands of a cultural niche that they find possible to occupy. They find jobs they can qualify for, they get information from sources they have access to and feel comfortable in using, and as they slip ever more firmly into their literacy niche, they feel more and more satisfaction with their literacy skills. Maybe this is why so many U.S. adults think they read Well or Very Well, despite their poor performance on literacy tests.

If they are using themselves as a standard, Sticht concludes ominously, many adults are not able to judge whether or not their children are learning to read well in school and fail to act accordingly.

Envelope Culture

by Robert Pondiscio
November 28th, 2008

In Vietnam, parents who want teachers to pay more attention to their children pay extra money to kindergarten teachers monthly.  And when parents don’t abide by the unwritten rules of this “envelope culture,” kids can suffer.

“Hoang Thi Yen in district 8, HCM City, said she has to give VND200,000 [about 12 U.S. dollars] a month to both of her daughter’s two teachers for a ‘present’” VietNamNet reports.  “Yen said that all the parents she knows also give extra money to teachers. Yen is afraid that the teachers will not take care of her child if she doesn’t do this.”

Another parent reports that when she picks up her daughter from school and is not given a warm welcome, she understands that it’s time to give an envelope to the teachers. “Teachers change their attitude towards me and my child if I’m slow in giving money.”  Two months ago, says this parent, she was having difficulty persuading her son to go to kindergarten. Her son said he did not want to go to class. However, after she gave envelopes to teachers, her son all of a sudden liked going to school. “The teachers’ attitudes make me feel that they just want money, while they don’t care for children,” she said.

Follow Me

by Robert Pondiscio
November 28th, 2008

Who will govern a free nation if no one understands the mechanics and instruments of that freedom?  Maybe, one day, a demagogue, writes columnist Kathleen Parker in The Baltimore Sun.  That’s her bright and cheery conclusion after reviewing a poll that shows “only 27 percent of elected officeholders in the survey could identify a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Forty-three percent didn’t know what the Electoral College does. And 46 percent didn’t know that the Constitution gives Congress power to declare war.”

In his book Just How Stupid Are We?, historian Rick Shenkman, founder of George Mason University’s History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don’t know enough to make a reasoned judgment?  The founding fathers, Mr. Shenkman points out, weren’t so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a republic, not a democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.

OK, American’s lack of civic knowledge is low-hanging fruit when you need an evergreen column on a holiday weekend.  But Parker has more than half a point.  In tough economic times and a dangerous world, the potential to lead an uneducated country in any number of unsavory directions will always be a danger.

What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
November 26th, 2008

Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham posts a pair slides of 7th-grade writing assignments from two different middle schools in California, culled from a presentation by Ed Trust.  In the first, students are asked to submit a detailed character analysis of Anne Frank; the second asks students to write about “my best friend” or “a chore I hate.” The point is stark and obvious.  ”When you hear people talk about the expectations gap, this is the sort of thing they are talking about,” Rotherham writes. 

Would that it were so simple as “raising expectations.”  In the comments section, the smart and fiery John Thompson, an occasional contributor to this blog, describes a disappointing exercise at his Oklahoma City high school similar to the one posted by Eduwonk, and gets to the heart of the empty slogan that is “high expectations.” 

Had it been done as a wake-up call, and a first step towards raising standards, it would have been constructive. Had they asked why some teachers wrongly lowered standards too much, making class dull, it would have been a great professional development tool. Had they addressed the extreme classroom disruptions in neighborhood 7th grade classes that make it virtually impossible to do more than busywork, it would have been a contructive excercise….But our district leaders had the the same visceral response as you seem to be having, and mandated immediate and much much higher standards. Instantly, many core teachers were intimidated into teaching five years above the students reading level, and failure rates soared to 95% in some. The dropout rate exploded and the distrcit immediately abandoned the experiment.

“The reality is so shameful, when administrators/lobbyists with no relevant experience in the classroom come in contact with it, they have no idea how complex the problem is,” writes Thompson. ”Then when the consultants offer the simple and free solution of just “raise expectations,” the blame and shame game takes over, and the students are hurt even more.”

In my own comments on Eduwonk, I point out that curriculum is an undiscussed piece of the “high expectations” dodge.  To John’s point, students don’t just show up in middle school five years behind their higher-achieving peers.  You can’t feed kids a thin gruel of content-free, “self-directed” reading and writing for their entire academic career and then expect them to suddenly be able to write a nuanced character study of Anne Frank in the 7th grade.  You can’t ask kids to do “self-directed” writing about their family, their friends and their personal experiences throughout elementary school to the exclusion of nearly all else, then expect them to dazzle you with their insights into literature in middle school. 

The policy community, alas, continues to be nearly silent on curriculum, focusing instead on incentives, “teacher quality,” and other structual issues.  Read Eduwonk’s post and the responses.  May I humbly submit that the time has long since come to a) start looking at what students are actually being taught and, b) listening to teachers?

Election Winners and Losers

by Robert Pondiscio
November 26th, 2008

If you favor school choice and charters, then Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee get the highest marks for “improvements shown” based on the results of this month’s state and federal elections, according to the Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform.  In Ohio and Wisconsin, things have taken the biggest turn for the worse, based on a state-by-state analysis on CER’s website. 

While it’s still too early to assess completely how recent election results will affect the rise (or fall) of a broad array of school choice programs,” notes CER founder and president Jeanne Allen. “A few states did have significant changes that might provide a glimpse of what is to come.”

In Kentucky, one of ten states without a charter school law, “a bi-partisan coalition of reformers with strong support from minority communities stands ready to propose educational choice,” says Allen.  Oklahoma, meanwhile, has a “weak and ineffective charter law” that has actually been under attack.  “But with the legislature now squarely in the hands of reform-friendly Republicans and a new superintendent race in two years, which may be won by the parent activist who first brought charters to the Sooner State, we anticipate much activity to grow opportunity for kids,” she writes. 

Finally, we are so thrilled that the planets seem to have aligned in Tennessee where the leadership knows and appreciates the need for in-depth changes to that state’s charter law, stymied by onerous requirements that prevent most kids from being able to avail themselves of better schools outside of a few pockets of hope.

In Ohio and Wisconsin, on the other hand, CER thinks shifts to Democratic rule in state Houses of Representatives “will send the champions of choice in these two states into the minority.  These two states have Governors who have pushed to obliterate the path-breaking choices that children in those states enjoy – and are the only two that offer both charters and more ecumenical choices through vouchers.”

Now How Much Would You Pay? But Wait, There’s More!!

by Robert Pondiscio
November 25th, 2008

Now that school budgets are getting hammered and bake sales are verboten, perhaps other teachers might wish to steal a fundraising idea from Poway, California calculus teacher Tom Farber.  He’s begun selling ad space on tests and quizzes to cover printing costs cut out of his school’s budget.

Farber’s customers pay $10 for an ad on a quiz, $20 to be on a chapter test and $30 for a spot on a semester final, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.  “Farber said he has sold about $350 in ads, more than enough to make up what the school budget doesn’t pay for,” the paper notes.  “He said he still has ad space for next semester, and whatever extra money he collects will go to the math department for other teachers to use.”

May I humbly suggest that Farber might be wanting for ambition? Why stop at mere ad space?  Just about every elementary school teacher has taught probability or graphing using a packet of M&Ms.  Stop thinking of that as a lesson plan–it’s a product placement opportunity!  (Face it, Mars Inc., Skittles or Reese’s Pieces would work just as well.  What’s a captive audience of twenty-five  3rd graders worth to you?)  Endorsement deals! (“Ticonderoga…the official No. 2 pencil of Room 501″) 

How much would naming rights for classrooms, gymnasiums or entire schools fetch?  Citigroup shelled out $400 million for naming rights to the New York Mets new ballpark.  That works out to $8,000 per seat.  At that rate, a 500-seat elementary school is worth $4 million!  Of course, even that relative bargain might be too rich for Citi’s blood right now. 

I wonder if Alberto Carvalho has thought of this?

(Finder’s Fee: Joanne Jacobs)

Where’s the Bailout for Schools?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 25th, 2008

You knew it was just a matter of time before someone asked, “Where’s the bailout for public schools?”  With Wall Street and the banks on the receiving end of hundreds of billions of federal largesse, and the Big Three automakers next in line, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is calling on the federal government to consider a bailout of the nation’s public schools.

”The question in my mind is this: At a time when we’re continuing the bailout of key industries, at what point do we have a bailout of public education?” asks Carvalho, whose district has already trimmed about $300 million from its budget, and could face an additional $65 million in cuts, according to the Miami Herald.  The Miami-Dade school system is the nation’s fourth largest.

”The most commonly heard solution out of Washington these days is a bailout where the federal government intervenes to safeguard key industries and in the process, the quality of American life,” Carvalho said. “If that’s the rationale, than I cannot think of a more strategic investment than safeguarding the quality of public education.”

Meanwhile, over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham, who is nothing if not plugged in to the political machinery, reports “hearing some rumblings that a big pre-K program would make a great stimulus package education component.”  But Rotherham thinks school construction makes more sense.  “There is a real need for both traditional public schools and public charter schools and it’s a sensible way to create and maintain jobs,” he writes.   

Restoring Bipartisan Support for NCLB

by Robert Pondiscio
November 24th, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama’s first and hardest task on education will be to “restore the broad bipartisan support it took to pass the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act,” says the Washington Post’s Maria Glod.  “That consensus has splintered, with people on both sides of the aisle souring on the law as it is overdue for reauthorization in Congress,” she writes

“Forget the details of No Child Left Behind. The big challenge there is having to rebuild that bipartisan coalition,” said Gary Huggins, director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent effort of the Aspen Institute. “On the Democratic side you have people walking away from it because of union pushback. On the GOP side you have people walking away because this is too large a federal footprint.”

I’m not sure I agree with Huggins’ broad-brush analysis.  Among educators, the consensus tends be “good goal/bad bill.”  In the main, teachers remain supportive of the laudable aims of NCLB, but live day-to-day with the law’s unintended consequences.  Contrary to popular opinion, teachers are not accountability-averse.  But the narrowing of curriculum that has occurred under NCLB has too often made school a content-free, joyless grind for teachers and students.  The key to restoring bipartisan support and getting teachers on board is getting accountability right.